Foraging and fine dining at Wild in Harrogate

PUBLISHED: 17:30 17 May 2016

Lamb, wild garlic and wild asparagus

Lamb, wild garlic and wild asparagus

not Archant

Jo Haywood takes a walk on the Wild side in Harrogate

Chef Jim Key plates lamb with wild garlicChef Jim Key plates lamb with wild garlic

Jim Key set himself the challenge of becoming a chef de partie by the age of 17, a sous chef at 20, head chef at 24 and in charge of his own place at 35. He achieved each and every goal, signing for his restaurant in Harrogate the day before his 35th birthday.

To say he’s quite driven is like saying Jamie Oliver is quite miffed about sugary drinks or Kim Kardashian is quite partial to a selfie. But, rather refreshingly, he doesn’t allow his strong goal-oriented work ethic to weigh him down. He refuses to be straitjacketed by a rigid menu and gives himself the freedom to run a little wild when it comes to ingredients and ideas.

‘I like to include an element of surprise in my menus,’ said Jim, chef-owner of Wild in Swan Road, Harrogate. ‘They change pretty much daily depending on what ingredients I have. Today, I’ve got wood mushrooms and monk’s beard (a relatively unknown green, similar to chard with a slightly bitter aftertaste).

‘I like to include ingredients foraged from all over the country, although these mushrooms are actually from Yorkshire. It’s amazing how much we can eat but don’t know we can. There are tonnes of edible stuff out there that we just ignore. I suppose I’m educating people about foraged food while the foragers educate me.

John Hobson sets tables for lunch at the Wild RestaurantJohn Hobson sets tables for lunch at the Wild Restaurant

‘I still get surprised by food. But it’s great because it means I can play and experiment.’

Jim, originally from Bramhope in Leeds, has been playing with his food since leaving school to study at Harrogate College. Unusually for someone so dedicated to his craft, he doesn’t have a foodie background – most of his family are in the education sector – and spent very little time in the kitchen as a child apart from ‘the odd meringue with my grandma.’

But his passion and drive was there from a very young age and has not wavered since. Well, with the exception of one minor wobble.

‘Apparently, I told my mum when I was four years old that I wanted to be a cooker,’ he said. ‘I obviously didn’t really have a clue but I think, even then, I knew I wanted to do something practical that was also creative and arty.

Rosewater cured trout, avocado and marigoldRosewater cured trout, avocado and marigold

‘Cooking gives you the freedom to develop and build a dish using your own hands and your own ideas. It’s a great way of showcasing who you are.’

Unfortunately, Jim’s natural creativity proved a little problematic at college, where the restrictions of the teaching kitchen left him cold.

‘Frankly, I didn’t get much out of college,’ he said. ‘They taught me to make a roux, but it was all a bit old fashioned.’

He opted instead for an apprenticeship, which put him right at the heart of the action. Yes, there was a lot of shouting and screaming from senior chefs in the kitchen, but there was also energy and determination. And he loved it.

Cured duck, peas and broadbeansCured duck, peas and broadbeans

‘I found it very addictive,’ said Jim. ‘You get the same adrenaline rush as if you’re doing an extreme sport. You push yourself to the limit all the time. By the end of the day, you’re exhausted. But then you can’t wait to get back in the kitchen again.’

He honed his skills at a number of quality restaurants before taking on the exalted head chef role at the Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey; Malmaison in Leeds; Church Green and Mottram Hall, both in Cheshire; and, finally, at Rare in Leeds (voted the second best restaurant in the UK).

‘It’s important to learn from every kitchen you work in and to take advice when it’s given,’ said Jim. ‘But it’s equally important to develop your own style and repertoire over time.

‘If people say something can’t work, I have to find a way to make it work. I suppose if I have developed a signature way of cooking over the years, something people might know me for, it’s combining sweet and savoury in every dish, including my desserts (like his ‘Eton Tidy’, which includes macerated strawberries, basil and pepper).’

He’s a naturally confident man in the kitchen, but it’s a mighty step up from running a brigade to running your own restaurant, with all the business headaches and myriad daily decisions that entails.

‘Of course running your own place is scary,’ he said. ‘Sleep deprivation is on the menu a lot at the moment. But if you believe in what you’re doing and have confidence in your cooking, it can work.

‘I listened to so much advise from so many people when I took on this place, my head started to spin. You can’t take on board a mish-mash of 40 different ideas so, in the end, I decided to trust myself. You have to if you want flow and consistency.’

He chose the name Wild because it reflects the foraged, natural ingredients he prefers to cook with, and because it offers the perfect platform for future branding opportunities for products, outside catering and restaurants (Wild in Manchester; Wild in Leeds; and, who knows, maybe even Wild in New York).

But, for now at least, he’s happy running Wild in Harrogate. Happy, but exhausted.

‘It’s really hard,’ said Jim. ‘I have to juggle a million different things and every decision is mine. But I honestly believe that if you put off opening your own place until you’re ready, you’ll never open your own place.

‘At least I can still spend my days in the kitchen; my comfort zone. I can think more clearly when I’m cooking, and no decision seems too hard when I’ve got a knife in my hand.’

One of the many decisions he’s sliced through with ease in recent weeks is the launch of ‘Experimental Tuesday’, a dining experience for customers willing to join him on a weekly culinary adventure.

‘They haven’t a clue what’s going to be on their plate,’ said Jim. ‘I just cook with whatever ingredients I have in the kitchen that day.

‘It adds a bit of intrigue and excitement. And it gives me a chance to express who I am and what I do.’

Sounds wild, doesn’t it?

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